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No. 89: John Cougar, ‘Jack & Diane’ – Top 100 Classic Rock Songs

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When summertime hits, or when you’d like to pretend it’s here, there’s no better song to revisit (and blast in the car at top volume) than ‘Jack & Diane.’

Released when John Mellencamp was still recording under the name John Cougar, it remains his biggest hit single, one which spent four weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, the song was a major reason why 1982’s ‘American Fool’ finally made Cougar a household name. It’s also earned him a spot on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list.

‘Jack & Diane’ endures because of its longing for a simpler time. The titular lovestruck teenagers live in a small town where “sucking on chili dogs / outside the Tastee Freeze” is an ideal date and enough to make the big city seem unappealing. These lyrics are tempered by the perspective of an outside observer—ostensibly someone looking back many years later–who gently notes: “Hold on to sixteen as long as you can / Changes come around real soon / Make us women and men.”

The song’s instrumentation and arrangement perpetuate this nostalgic vibe. Mellencamp’s long-time backing band—guitarists Mike Wanchic and Larry Crane, drummer Kenny Aronoff, bassist Robert Frank and keyboardist Eric Rosser—exhibit deft restraint. Handclaps, splattering percussion, sparse acoustic strumming and faded piano dominate, save for a bridge with soul-infused gang vocals. (According to Mellencamp, guitarist/backing vocalist Mick Ronson gets credit for helping this interlude gel.)

‘American Fool’ also helped cement another fruitful collaboration: It was the second album Cougar worked on with producer Don Gehman, and its success lead to a musical relationship which spanned from 1983′s ‘Uh-Huh’ and 1985′s ‘Scarecrow’ to 1987′s ‘The Lonesome Jubilee.’ Because of his work with Mellencamp, Gehman earned a reputation for having a masterful touch with folk-tinged pop music, which led to work with such stars as R.E.M.

Above all, the universal themes of ‘Jack & Diane’ — the exuberance of puppy love and the sense that being young lasts forever — still resonate today.

Next Song: Positive, Not Straight-Ahead

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Watch John Cougar Perform ‘Jack & Diane’

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